Colorado is easily one of the best states in the US to experience the great outdoors. The state is home to amazing hikes, cozy cabin getaways, and a selection of the best national parks in the US. Are you starting to plan your Colorado itinerary? These 12 best Colorado national parks and monuments are the greatest places to start.
Best Colorado National Parks
Colorado has four national parks: Rocky Mountain, Mesa Verde, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and Great Sand Dunes National Park. These national parks have some big ticket items, especially in the Rocky Mountains. In fact, they are some of the most visited national parks in the US.
From the country’s tallest sand dunes to UNESCO World Heritage Site cliff dwellings and exhilarating whitewater rafting, there is something for everyone. Let’s take a look at these fab four Colorado national parks.
If you plan to visit several Colorado national parks, purchase a National Parks and Federal Recreational Land Pass. The National Park Service offers an annual pass to all NPs for $80 a year that can be used at more than 2,000 recreation areas. Get more details here. The best way to see these national parks is by driving. Compare car rental rates at RentalCars.com
1. Rocky Mountain National Park
When people discuss US national parks, Rocky Mountain National Park is usually the more popular national park to crop up. Rocky Mountain National Park is the most visited national park in Colorado. The park covers a staggering 265,461 acres and stretches across multiple states – Colorado included.
It is also one of the country’s highest national parks, and the Rocky Mountains are famously snow-capped in sections. The entirety of the Rocky Mountain National Park is full of craggy mountains, alpine tundra, and beautiful forests. It is ideal for horseback riding holidays, hiking, and rock climbing. You’ll usually spot stray bighorn sheep too.
Getting there: Rocky Mountain National Park is a 1 hour and 20-minute drive from Denver, Colorado. You can rent a car to get there. Download your self-drive audio tour to discover the best viewpoints, hiking trails, mountain passes, and lakes as you follow GPS coordinates.
When to visit Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park is best visited in early spring, but only if you don’t want to access Trail Ridge Road. In March and April, there are fewer crowds than you’ll find in summer. Spring is when you’ll see flowers and other plant life blooming into action after winter. There will still be snow in places, but this is a peaceful period to visit the park.
If you want to access Trail Ridge Road, we recommend visiting the park in late May or June. The road (Colorado’s highest continuous paved road) will have just opened, but crowd numbers will still be low.
Things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park
Spot bears and elk near Estes Park. Hike around Bear Lake. Drive Trail Ridge Road. Read more: 15 Best Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park
Where to stay in Rocky Mountain National Park
Blue Door Inn is 4 miles from the Rocky Mountain National Park entrance and is set against a backdrop of snowcapped peaks. The facilities are ace, too, with a seasonal pool, basketball courts, and barbeques with picnic tables.
Grand Lake Lodge is a beautiful property with a gorgeous pool with views of the surrounding scenery. The lodge is ideal for big groups and channeling luxury-loving energy, with a hot tub and dramatic-looking firepit.
Rams Horn Village Resort is perfect for a holiday resort vibe. Guests get a two-bedroom holiday home with a full kitchen and hot tub access. There’s also a business center and a gym to enjoy when you aren’t exploring Rocky Mountain National Park – aka Colorado’s most visited national park.
2. Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park is another fantastic addition to our Colorado national parks. But while the Rocky Mountains are famed for their dramatic peaks and alpine lakes, Mesa Verde is famed for its historical sites. Mesa Verde National Park is where you’ll find Cliff Palace – the Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings.
For even more historical sites, you can drive Mesa Top Loop Road. This road passes some remarkable historical attractions, including Petroglyph Point Trail. Mesa Verde National Park really is the heart of culture in the Colorado national parks. It has over 4,700 archeological sites, and this statistic includes over 600 cliff dwellings.
Getting there: Mesa Verde Mountain National Park is a 7-hour from Denver, Colorado. 6 hours from Salt Lake City, Utah, and 4 hours from Albuquerque, New Mexico. The closest city to Mesa Verde is Cortez Colorado. You can rent a car to get there. Get your self-drive audio tour to discover the best viewpoints, hiking trails, mountain passes, and lakes as you follow GPS coordinates.
When to visit
So, when should you visit this national park? Either June or early September. While in an ideal world, you could avoid the crowds in the fall or spring, this isn’t a good idea if you want to see the historical sites.
Attractions like Cliff Palace don’t open until late May and close in late September. To really get the most out of Mesa Verde National Park, it is best to visit in June or early September to visit the best attractions with the fewest crowds.
Things to do in Mesa Verde National Park
Visit Cliff Palace. Hike Petroglyph Point Trail. Visit Step House Read more: 29 Best Places to Visit in Colorado
Where to stay in Mesa Verde National Park
Far View Lodge is set right within Mesa Verde and is an excellent base if you don’t want to travel in and out of the park entrance daily. You won’t feel cut off from the action with three restaurants onsite and guided tours running from the reception desk.
Retro Inn at Mesa Verde is a more budget-friendly, urban alternative. The motel is cheery, with comfortable furnishings and various room types, including family rooms. And when you’ve visited the nearby Colorado national park, you can enjoy the town of Cortez.
Grizzly Roadhouse Bed and Breakfast is a simple country retreat. Get ready for simple pleasures – mountain views, air-conditioning, and a coffee machine. This property is loved for its location and peaceful atmosphere.
3. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is sadly overlooked by many tourists. Don’t make this mistake. Black Canyon National Park is one of the best Colorado national parks. The park’s main attraction is (obviously) its black canyons. The national park is full of narrow and terrifyingly steep canyons cut out of Precambrian metamorphic rock by the Gunnison River over millions of years. You can access countless viewpoints and trails on both the south rim and the north rim.
However, Black Canyon National Park is also home to peregrine falcons – the fastest bird in the world. Bring a pair of binoculars; you might get lucky with a sighting. And keep your eyes peeled at night, too, as Black Canyon is an international dark sky park with some of Colorado’s most beautiful starry skies.
Getting there: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is 4 1/2 hours from Denver, Colorado and 4-hours from Colorado Springs. You can rent a car to get there.
When to visit
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is best visited between mid-April and November when the National Park Service operates the ranger station and opens roads to the south and north rim. Of this period, late-April and early May are the nicest times to visit.
The crowds are scarce, the temperatures are milder, and flora is starting to perk up after winter. Nearby, Curecanti National Recreation Area is outstanding at this time of year, with a serene collection of three scenic reservoirs. Similarly, the Gunnison River tends to be more impressive at this time of year. The melted ice and snow do wonders for raising rivers and creating dramatic rapids.
Things to do in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Drive South Rim Road. Hike Chasm View Nature Trail. Visit the Museum of the Mountain West.
Where to stay in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Old School Lodge is a stunning period property with mountain views, just outside one of the most famed Colorado national parks in Montrose. The interior is a picture of elegance and an ideal base for anyone seeking luxury near Gunnison.
The Blue Bungalow is a gorgeous two-bedroom holiday home with a characteristic blue-painted exterior. Guests access a patio, sun terrace, and homely comforts like a garden and living room. And situated in Montrose, the bungalow is perfect for exploring the fantastic nearby Colorado national park.
Hotchkiss Inn Motel is best described as basic but comfortable. This motel is in the town of Hotchkiss and is ideally situated to explore the Black Canyon National Park. It also has some extra thoughtful details, like a daily continental breakfast and 24-hour reception.
4. Great Sand Dunes National Park
On the other hand, Great Sand Dunes National Park does not suffer from under-tourism. This bizarre but completely encapsulating national park is one of the best Colorado national parks to enjoy a dramatic landscape. The park is home to the tallest sand dunes in the US. And with sharp mountain peaks behind the rolling dunes, the setting is like something out of a movie.
Greats Sand Dunes National Park has many individually famous dunes, including Star Dune (rumored to be the tallest at 755 feet). While recognized as one of the Colorado national parks, the park also has dunes accessible wheelchairs that is free to use. Get more information at the National Park Service here.
You can still walk freely over all the sand dunes, plus go sandboarding if you want some extra excitement. Just be mindful to avoid the midday heat when visiting near summer, as the sand becomes scorching. Out of all Colorado’s national parks, Great Sand Dunes is the one that requires the most careful planning when it comes to timing your visit.
Getting there: Great Sand Dunes National Park is a 3-hour from Denver, Colorado. You can rent a car to get there.
When to Visit
Considering this, it is no wonder that the best time of year to visit is outside of summer. September and October are optimum months, with cooler weather and fewer crowds. While avoiding the midday heat when visiting the dunes is still advisable, you shouldn’t find it red hot underfoot now.
Things to do in Great Sand Dunes National Park
Hike Star Dune. Go sandboarding. Stop by the Great Sand Dunes Visitor Center.
Where to stay in Great Sand Dunes National Park
Marriott is probably not an unfamiliar name, and the Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott Alamosa is a credit to its chain. As well as meeting and dining facilities, the hotel has an indoor pool and fitness center – perfect luxuries after a day at the Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Hampton Inn Alamosa is similarly modern. The hotel is ideally situated to visit the Great Sand Dunes and has facilities that include an indoor pool and gym. The Hampton Inn Alamosa has a continental breakfast each morning and even offers takeaway breakfast bags.
The Best Western Movie Manor is stunning. There are no two ways about it. The manor has a seasonal drive-in movie theater, gym, and business center. And with a complimentary breakfast each morning, you’ll be well-fed before visiting the Great Sand Dunes.
Planning Your Trip to Colorado
Are you planning a trip to Colorado? Check out our Colorado travel guides to help plan your itinerary
Best Colorado National Monuments
Fancy a more specific experience of natural scenery in Colorado? Forget the colossal Colorado national parks and see some of the best national monuments instead. A national monument is any place the government protects because of its natural beauty and historical or scientific importance.
These Colorado national monuments are some of the best places to visit in the state. Check out these top 8.
7. Chimney Rock National Monument
Chimney Rock National Monument is a fascinating national monument. The 4,726 acre contains a vast archaeological site that dates back over 1,000 years. The most striking part of this site is Chimney Rock, a massive rocky mound 7,000 feet above sea level. The spire of the mound is what gives it its nickname ‘chimney’, and it is an imposing landmark for those wanting good views as well as history. Chimney Rock National Monument is a place to tick off your bucket list. The monument takes at least a few hours to fully appreciate. You can head out on guided tours regularly throughout the day during the tourist season.
Historically, Chimney Rock National Monument was a Pueblo II community between 900 to 1150 AD. The ancient residences are highly significant to the indigenous population and are a remarkable testament to the community’s ancestral history. Of course, its astronomical value is also worth mentioning. The ancient structures were devised with astronomy in mind – which you can learn more about on a guided tour.
Chimney Rock National Monument is in San Juan National Forest, southwest Colorado. It is easily combined with a visit to Mesa Verde, so keep it in mind if you want a national monument to pair with one of the Colorado national parks.
8. Canyons of the Ancients National Monument
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument is a little larger – ideal if you have more time to explore its 6,000 ancient sites. The protected area covers 176,000 acres, connected by a network of hiking trails and dusty roads. The area’s central hub is the Canyons of the Ancients Visitor Center and Museum, which we recommend visiting first. This way, you can apply all the engaging information and exhibits to the ruins and archaeological attractions dotted around the monument. And when you are done, there are pictographs, ancient dwellings, and scenic desert landscapes galore.
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument is a fantastic monument to visit if you want to explore a larger site. While much smaller than the Colorado national parks, this monument still warrants a long weekend to enjoy thoroughly. We love that, though, and it adds an adventurous appeal. The museum is also an excellent touch.
In terms of historical significance, it’s pretty clear that the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument is one of the most essential spots in Colorado. The area is one of the richest sites of Native American ancestral history. The land was inhabited by humans for over 10,000 years, so there are plenty of stories to be told.
This monument is located in southern Colorado, next to the Colorado-Utah border. It is an easy drive from Mesa Verde or San Juan National Forest. You can base yourself in one of the significant southern Colorado towns like Cortez and explore a mixed itinerary of Colorado national parks, forests, and monuments.
9. Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument is something a little different. Unlike the other two monuments we’ve discussed, this area is famous for natural history rather than humans. For science and geology, look no further than Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. Situated in central Colorado, this monument is just outside of Colorado Springs. This monument is perfect if you want an accessible monument to visit from a city break. You can hop on a direct flight to Colorado Springs and then rent a car to reach Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument.
So, what natural history can you find in this protected area? Mainly insect and plant fossils. We recommend taking a guided walk to get the most out of the experience. After all, it can be easy to miss something really profound if you don’t have an expert eye. In addition to these fossils, you can spot petrified redwood stumps. Florissant Fossil Beds is home to the world’s only known trio of petrified redwood trees, and you can observe them from a shaded viewing platform.
Time-wise, you can quickly appreciate this monument in a few hours. The site is around 5,998 acres and is worth visiting as a day trip from Colorado Springs. Despite being established as a national monument in 1969, the fossils date around 34 million years. The monument’s phenomenon was formed by nearby volcanic eruptions, which coated flora and fauna in a thick layer of ash – preserving them for eternity.
10. Yucca House National Monument
This Colorado national monument houses a single archaeological site south of Cortez in southwestern Colorado. The site was once a massive Ancestral Pueblo village and held a significant position in Montezuma Valley. At just 34 acres, it’s one of the smallest monuments in Colorado and can easily be explored on foot on a day trip. One thing to note is that Yucca House National Monument is unexcavated. To the non-archaeologist, this means ruins that you probably wouldn’t notice if you didn’t know they were there.
Because Yucca House National Monument is unexcavated, it is quite a niche place to visit in Colorado. Compared to the attractions in the four Colorado national parks and some of the state’s other monuments, some may not find Yucca House National Monument as engaging. However, for enthusiasts or more patient tourists, the monument is perfect for escaping the crowds and enjoying a lesser-visited archaeological attraction. And besides, the network of unmarked gravel and dirt roads you’ll use to reach it makes visiting Yucca House a real adventure. What better way to travel to an ancient farming village? Yucca House is immersive and untouched, despite its monument status.
Yucca House was home to the Ancient Puebloan community between 1150 to 1300 AD. It is unknown what caused the mass migration (or possible evacuation) from the village at the end of this period. Mysterious and minimally adjusted for tourists’ eyes, Yucca House is a fascinating historical attraction in Colorado.
11. Dinosaur National Monument
To immerse yourself in the Jurassic era, forget Colorado national parks and head to Dinosaur National Monument. This region consists of over 1,500 preserved dinosaur remains – immortalized in fossils in the monument’s Quarry Exhibit Hall. The remains date back as long ago as 150 million years. And, if you are lucky, you can even touch a few dinosaur fossils.
Apart from dinosaur remains, Dinosaur National Monument is also renowned for its petroglyphs and white water rafting. You can use hiking trails to catch glimpses of the petroglyphs up close, including at McKee Spring and Deluge Shelter. River rafting is best experienced on an organized tour. Overall, though, it’s easy to see why Dinosaur National Monument is so popular. It is action-packed and fun, with a unique opportunity to get close to dinosaur remains.
Size-wise, get ready for some driving and long hiking trails. The monument is 210,000 acres and could take between three hours and two days to explore – depending on whether you want to see the dinosaurs or not. The quarry itself protects 80 acres of condensed fossils. The finding was the work of paleontologist Earl Douglass in 1909. By 1915, the area was formally announced as a national monument.
12. Browns Canyon National Monument
Browns Canyon National Monument is one of the newest Colorado monuments, only earning its title in 2015. Brown Canyon is cut out by the Arkansas River and has characteristic granite cliffs and outcrops. Don’t just visit the canyon and leave; the protected region around it is full of forests, rivers, and wildlife-spotting hotspots. In summer, you can access beautiful hiking trails and appreciate stunning views of striking hues in the inner canyon. Bring binoculars, too, as Browns Canyon National Monument is known for bobcats, falcons, and black bears.
At 21,536 acres, Browns Canyon National Monument might not be the size of the Rocky Mountain National Park. However, it still demands a decent chunk of time to visit. So, why visit in the first place? Browns Canyon National Monument is one of the most undisturbed riverbank ecosystems along the Arkansas River. Because of this, it’s teeming with wildlife and excellent for those wanting a peaceful experience in nature. You won’t find the crowds you get at major US attractions like the Grand Canyon or even the Colorado national parks. Perfect for a true wilderness experience.
Colorado National Parks and Monuments Map
These top 12 Colorado national parks and monuments highly deserve an itinerary spot. Seriously, you’ll love them. Having the tallest dunes in the US and the Rocky Mountains in the same state is incredible. Not to mention the beautiful alpine lakes and historical cliff dwellings.
If you can, visit them all, but if you really have to narrow it down, we hope you’ve found your ideal match. As an all-year-round destination, Colorado has a lot of outdoor attractions regardless of whether you visit in winter or summer. If you plan to visit in winter, check out our best things to do in Aspen guide first. Otherwise, enjoy Colorado.